April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

I recently embarked on an experience that I knew would raise my anxiety; being in crowded social scenes where I don’t know many people can activate me. I tend to experience sensory overload—hearing noises as louder than they are and finding physical spaces to be tight. My husband commented on how it appears visceral for me—it’s obvious that I feel it in my nervous system—whereas he is unbothered by this type of setting. Add my kids in the mix and you’ve just taken my anxiety up a notch. And for me, anxiety does not mean heart-racing or that my hands shake. Rather, I become more irritable and withdrawn, and cognitive distortions—like all or nothing thinking—tend to pop everywhere.

And clearly, I know all of this. I have the insight to understand and prepare to manage this type of experience. I can remind myself in advance of what to expect in a manner that does not enable a self-fulfilling prophecy, but normalizes my feelings when faced with this setting. But sometimes, insight can only take us so far. The next step is implementing a coping skill.

Typically when I bring up coping skills with clients, they tend to roll their eyes. Coping skills, unfortunately, have a poor reputation. And I believe this is because of what people want these skills to be, and their disappointment when their hopes are not met. People want coping skills to be magical. They want the skill to be accessible, work every single time and also completely change the person’s emotional experience. Feeling depressed? Don’t worry—this life-changing skill will take away those low emotions and thoughts in no time, leaving you happy!

No. Not at all.

Coping skills are meant to make an experience tolerable or to bring someone to a headspace that can allow the person to make a thoughtful, informed decision about what to do next or how to take care of himself or herself. They are not going to take away feelings or change someone’s life, hence the eye roll.

Right now we are working with our nearly 5-year-old daughter to practice using her words when having a big feeling, rather than screaming or scream-crying. We validate that any emotions are okay, and we want to help her be able to feel those emotions and express herself. The other day she actually told me that she would like ideas for what to do in the moment, when she feels activated, and we reviewed counting to seven, taking a deep breath while hugging herself or holding her hands together and feeling her fingers move over one another. The idea is not that once she does any or all of these tools the feeling will go away; instead, it is that she can regulate enough to be able to then use her words to discuss what is coming up for her and what she needs. In moments of activation our emotion-mind is often at the forefront and we need to get our logic-mind back online, so that we can combine the two to form a “wise mind” (DBT) to best take care of ourselves.

Sometimes coping skills are tactile, sometimes they involve distraction, and sometimes they rely on our minds. In preparation for that social event, I visualized in advance what it might feel like as a way of enabling my brain to prepare; we are more likely to be able to use skills when we’ve reviewed them first. Then I reminded myself of possible internal dialogue including the ideas that this would not last forever, that I am not actually in any danger and that I have the ability to take deep breaths if feeling overwhelmed.

So I did. And this time, it worked; I was able to stay within a level of anxiety that felt tolerable. The tools did not make my anxiety disappear, but it made it absolutely manageable. And … sometimes these particular tools won’t feel helpful. That’s the other major mistake people make: If a tool doesn’t help once, people tend to write it off. We are complex humans facing even more complex environments. The same tool may not work every time. So we create an arsenal of tools, trying them on rotation and remembering that neither the tool, nor ourselves are at fault if they do not feel helpful in a given moment. Perhaps the next time I could step out for a moment for some air, take a cold drink of water, reflect in the moment what feels most difficult and reframe with an internal dialogue.

Tools are available. And we need to know that they will not always work the same way. But let’s not write them off. Let’s also not endorse the idea that we are beyond help. Reach into your toolbox and reach out for support if you need ideas for those tools. Set your expectations, recognize the hope, and then—try.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works in New York and New Jersey with individuals ages 18 and older who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Zucker is an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a metro-New York consultant at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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